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THE EMERALD BUDDHA

BY FREDERICK ARNOLD KUMMER

CHAPTER I
MR. ASHTON

THE dull October afternoon was rapidly drawing to a close as I passed through the village of Pinhoe and set my steps rather wearily toward Exeter. I had conceived the idea, some time before, of walking from London to Torquay, and my chief concern at the moment was to decide whether or not I could cover the intervening five miles and reach the Half Moon Hotel in High Street before the impending storm broke.

I had left Pinhoe perhaps half a mile to the rear, when the strong southwest gale whipped into my face some drops of cold, stinging rain. As I hesitated, uncertain whether to go forward in the face of the gale or to beat a hasty retreat to the village, I heard behind me the sound of an approaching automobile.

It slowed up, and a voice inquired whether I could point out the way to Major Temple's place. I glanced up and saw a tall, heavily built man of perhaps some forty years of age, bronzed and rugged, with the mark of the traveler upon him, and although his face at first impressed me unpleasantly, the impression was dispelled in part at least by his peculiarly attractive smile. I informed him that I was myself a comparative stranger to that part of England. He then asked if I were going toward Exeter and, on my affirmative reply, at once invited me to get into the car, as he could carry me at least the major part of my way.

He was a good looking fellow, of a sort, with a somewhat sensuous face, and I felt certain that his short, stubby, black mustache concealed a rather cruel mouth. Evidently a man to gain his ends, I thought, without being over nice about the means he employed.

Presently he turned to me, "I understand," he said, "that Major Temple's place is upon the main road, about half a mile this side of Exeter. There is a gray stone gateway, and a lodge. I shall try the first entrance answering that description."

I suggested that I should leave the car as soon as we reached the gateway in question and continue upon foot the balance of my way. My companion nodded and we rode in silence for a few moments. Suddenly, with a great swirl of dead leaves and a squall of cold rain, the storm broke upon us, and a moment later we tinned without stopping into a handsome gray stone gateway and up a long, straight gravel road bordered on each side by a row of beautiful oaks. I glanced up in some surprise, but he only smiled and nodded, so I said no more, realizing that he could hardly set me down in the face of such a storm.

A quarter of a mile, through a fine park, and a swift turn brought us up under the porte-cochère of a large gray stone house of a peculiar and to me somewhat gloomy and unattractive appearance. The rain and wind were now so bad that I saw it would be useless to attempt to proceed against it, and after a short wait the door was thrown open by a servant and we hurriedly entered.

WE FOUND ourselves in a large, dimly lighted hallway. I inspected with considerable curiosity the man who had admitted us, not only because of his Oriental appearance—he was a Chinaman of the better sort—but also because he was dressed in his native garb. He, upon his part, showed not the slightest interest in our coming, as he inspected us with his childlike, sleepy eyes.

"Tell Major Temple," said my friend, "that Mr. Robert Ashton is here, and—" he turned to me with a questioning glance—

"Owen Morgan," I replied, wondering if he would know me by name. If he did, he showed no sign.

"Just so—Mr. Owen Morgan," he continued, then strode toward a log fire which crackled and sputtered cheerily upon the hearth of a huge stone fire-place.

"I'm afraid I'm rather presuming upon the situation," I suggested when I had joined him, "but perhaps the storm will slacken up presently."

"Major Temple will be glad to see you, I'm sure," rejoined Mr. Ashton unconcernedly. " You can't possibly go on, you know."

"I'm afraid not," I answered, a bit ungraciously.

"The Major is a queer old character," Mr. Ashton remarked. "Great traveler and collector. I'm here on a matter of business myself—partly, at least. He'll be glad to meet you. I fancy he's a bit lonely with nobody to keep him company but his daughter. Here he comes now."

He turned toward a tall spare man with gray hair and drooping gray mustaches. His face, like Ashton's, had the dull burnt-in tone of brown which is acquired only by long exposure to the sun and which usually marks its possessor as a traveler in the hot countries.

"Ah, Ashton," exclaimed the Major, dropping his monocle, "delighted to see you. You arrived yesterday?"

"Late yesterday; you see I lost no time in coming to report the result of my quest."

"And you were successful?" demanded the older man excitedly.

"Entirely so," replied Ashton with a smile of satisfaction.

"Good! Good!" The Major rubbed his hands and smiled, then, apparently observing me for the first time, glanced at Mr. Ashton with a slight frown and an interrogative expression.

"Mr. Owen Morgan," said Ashton lightly, "on his way to Exeter with me. I took the liberty of bringing him in, on accountof the storm."

"I am ready to go on at once," I interjected stiffly, "as soon as the rain lets up a bit."

"Nonsense, nonsense!" The Major's voice was somewhat testy. "You can't possibly proceed on a night like this. Make yourself at home, sir. Any friend of Mr. Ashton's is welcome here." He turned to one of the servants, who had entered the room'to turn on the lights. "Show Mr. Ashton and Mr. Morgan to their rooms, Gibson. You'll be wanting to fix up a bit before dinner," he announced.

"Which rooms, sir, shall I show the gentlemen to?" asked the man, a trifle uneasily, I thought.

The Major looked at Ashton and laughed. "Ashton," he said, "you know I took this place only a short time ago on my return from my last trip to the East and, as we do not have many visitors, it's a bit musty and out of shape. Queer old house, I fancy. Supposed to be haunted or something of the sort. I imagine it won't worry you much."

"Hardly," replied my companion. "I've outgrown ghosts. Lead on to the haunted chamber."

The Major turned to the servant. " Show the gentlemen to the two rooms in the west wing, Gibson—the green room will suit Mr. Ashton, I fancy, and perhaps Mr. Morgan will find the white-and-gold room across the hall comfortable for the night."

I found my room a large and fairly comfortable one, and busied myself in making such preparations for dinner as I could with the few requisites my small knapsack contained.

AFTER a considerable time I heard the musical notes of a Chinese gong and, making my way to the staircase, I saw Ashton just joining a strikingly beautiful and distinguished looking girl of perhaps twenty-two or-three, dressed in an evening gown of white, the very simplicity of which only served to accentuate the splendid lines of her figure. With her splendid eyes and wide brow, crowned with a mass of bronze-colored hair, I felt that even my critical artistic taste could with difficulty find a flaw. It was evident that she and Mr. Ashton knew each other well, yet it seemed to me that Miss Temple did not respond with much cordiality to his effusive greeting.

As I joined them, Major Temple presented me as a friend of Mr. Ashton's, which, it appeared to me, did not predispose that young lady particularly in my favor.

CHAPTER II
AN APPEAL FOR HELP

DURING dinner the two men talked continually of China, and referred frequently to "it," and to "the stone." I attempted to carry on a conversation with Miss Temple, but she seemed laboring under intense excitement and unable to give my efforts any real attention. As near as I could gather, Ashton had set out from Hong Kong some months before on a search for a certain stone or jewel which Major Temple desired for his collection, and after an adventurous trip, during which he had been forced at the risk of his life to remain disguised as a coolie for some weeks, had finally escaped and returned to England.

There was also some talk of a reward, which seemed to give Mr. Ashton great satisfaction and to cause Major Temple much uneasiness, for I saw him glance frequently at the blanched face of his daughter.

As Mr. Ashton brought his thrilling story to a conclusion h£ drew from his waistcoat pocket a small, green, leather case, evidently of Chinese workmanship, and turned out upon the white cloth a miniature representation of the god Buddha, above an inch and a half in height and wonderfully cut from a single flawless emerald!

As the wonderful, sparkling gem flashed across the white cloth in the direction of Miss Temple an expression of intense horror passed over her face as she caught the burning eyes of Mr. Ashton fixed upon hers. She returned his gaze defiantly for a moment, then lowered her eyes and composed her features behind the cold and impassive mask she had worn throughout the evening.

Ashton flushed a sullen red, then picked up the jewel and set it carelessly upon the top of a cut-glass salt-cellar and I was startled to see the wooden, impassive face of the Chinese servant light up with a glare of sudden anger and alarm as he caught sight .of the jewel. Major Temple, observing him at die same moment, quickly covered the figure with his hand, and the Chinaman, resuming almost instantly his customary look of childlike unconcern, proceeded to offer us cigars and cigarettes as Miss Temple rose and left the table. I excused myself, feeling superfluous, and strolled into the great hall, where I stood with my back to the welcome fire, listening to the howling of the storm without.

Perhaps fifteen minutes later Miss Temple came quickly into the hall, the beauty of her delicate, mobile face marred by evident mental suffering.

"You are a friend of Mr. Ashton's," she said, as she came up to me. "Have you known him long?"

"Miss Temple, I am afraid I can hardly claim to be a friend of Mr. Ashton's. I never met him before this afternoon."

"But I thought you came with him?" she said.

I explained my presence, and mentioned my work.

"Then you are Owen Morgan, the illustrator!" she cried. "I know your work very well, and I am delighted to meet you. I was afraid you, too, were in the conspiracy." Her face darkened again.

"The conspiracy?" I asked, much mystified.

Miss Temple looked apprehensively toward the door, then her eyes sought mine. "I am all alone here, Mr. Morgan," she said at last, "and I need a friend very badly. I wonder if I can depend upon you—trust you?"

I was surprised, but assured her I should be only too happy to serve her in any way.

"But what is it that you fear?" I inquired.

"My father," she said hurriedly, at the same time lowering her voice, "is a madman on the subject of jewels. He would give anything—anything to possess some curio upon which he had set his desires! Last year, in China, he saw by accident the emerald you have just seen. It was the sacred relic of a Buddhist temple in Ping Yang, and is said to have come from the holy city of Lhasa in Thibet. His offers to purchase it were laughed at, and when he persisted he was forced to leave the city to avoid trouble.

"In Hong Kong he made the acquaintance of this man Ashton, a sort of agent and collector. Mr. Ashton persecuted me with his attentions in spite of my repeated refusals to marry him. Imagine my amazement, then, when my father, on our arrival in England, told me that he had commissioned Mr. Ashton to obtain the Emerald Buddha for him, and had agreed, in the event of his success, to give him my hand in marriage!

"My prayers, my appeals, were all equally useless; he informed me that Mr. Ashton was a gentleman—that he had given him his word and could not break it. I was forced into a semi-acquiescence to the arrangement, believing that Mr. Ashton could never succeed in his mad attempt, when suddenly my father received word that Mr. Ashton had arrived at Southampton yesterday. I shall never marry Robert Ashton—never! I do not know what my father will ask of me, but if he asks that, I shall leave this house to-morrow, and I beg that you will take me with you, until I can find some occupation that will enable me to support myself!"

Her story filled me with the deepest astonishment. I thrust out jny hand and grasped hers. "You can depend upon me absolutely!" I exclaimed. "My mother is at Torquay. She will be glad to welcome you, Miss Temple."

"Thank you, thank you!" she cried in her deep, earnest voice. "Do not leave in the morning until I have seen you. Goodnight."

At the stairway she threw back a smile of such sweet gratitude and relief that I felt amply repaid for my promise.

SUDDENLY my attention was attracted by the sound of loud voices coming from the direction of the dining-room, as though Major Temple and his guest were engaged in a violent quarrel. Then Mr. Ashton burst into the hall, followed by Major Temple, both of them excited and angry.

"I hold you to your contract!" the former shouted. "By ——, you'll live up to it, or I'll know the reason why!"

"I'll pay, —— it, I'll pay!" cried Major Temple angrily. "But not a penny to boot!"

Ashton turned and faced him. "Don't you realize that that emerald is worth a hundred thousand pounds? You promised me your daughter, but you've got to pay me for the stone in addition!"

"Not a penny!" cried Major Temple.

"Then I'll take it to London and let Crothers have it!"

"Come now, Ashton, what did the stone cost you? Merely the cost of the trip, wasn't it? I'll pay that, if you like."

"And I risked my life a dozen times to get you the jewel! You must be mad! Fifty thousand pounds, and not a penny less!"

"It's mine—I told you of it! Without my help you could have done nothing. I demand it. It is my property. You were acting only as my agent. Give it to me!" Major Temple was beside himself with excitement.

"I'll see you —— first," cried Ashton, now thoroughly angry.

The Major glared at him, pale with fury. "I'll never let you leave the house with it!" he cried.

By this time my repeated coughing and shuffling of my feet had attracted their attention, and they both hastened to conceal their anger.

CHAPTER III
A CRY IN THE MORNING

IT SEEMED to me that I was disturbed, during the night, by the sound of voices without my door and the movements of people in the hallway, but I presume it was merely a dream. Just before daybreak, however, I got up to dose one of the windows, when I heard from the room across the hall, the one occupied by Mr. Ashton, a sudden and terrible cry as of some one in mortal agony, followed by the sound of a heavy body falling upon the floor. I also fancied I heard the quick dosing of a door or window, but of this I could not be sure.

I hastily threw on some clothes and ran into the hall, calling loudly for help. Opposite me was the door of Mr. Ashton's room; I found it locked. Presently Major Temple came running through the hallway, followed by his daughter and several of the servants. Miss Temple had thrown on a long silk Chinese wrapper and I could not help observing the ghastly pallor of her face.

"What's wrong here?" cried Major Temple excitedly.

"I do not know, sir," I replied. "I heard a cry from Mr. Ashton's room, but I find his door locked."

"Break it in!" cried Major Temple.

After several attempts the fastening gave way and we were precipitated headlong into the room. The gruesome sight before us caused both Major Temple and myself to recoil sharply toward the doorway. Upon the floor lay Robert Ashton in his night-clothes, his head in a pool of blood, his hands outstretched before him, his face ghastly with terror!

The Major at once ordered the servants to keep out of the room, then turned to his daughter and in a low voice requested her to retire. She did so at once, in a state of terrible excitement. He then closed the door behind us, lighting the gas, and we proceeded to examine the body. Ashton was dead, although death had apparently occurred but a short time before. In the top of his head we found a deep circular wound apparently made by some heavy, sharp-pointed instrument, but there were no other marks of violence. I examined the wound in the head carefully, but could not imagine any weapon which would have left such a mark.

And then the wonder of the situation began to dawn upon me. All three windows were securely fastened with heavy bolts on the inside. There was absolutely no other means of entrance except the door, and a rapid examination of its broken fastenings showed it had been bolted upon the inside. Major Temple was engaged in searching Mr. Ashton's Gladstone bag, heedless of the grim and silent figure upon the floor beside him, and, when he had concluded, bent over the prostrate form of the dead man and began a hurried search of his person and the surrounding floor. "The police must never find it!" I heard him mutter. Then with a sudden cry he dashed at a table on which lay the small green leather case from which Ashton had produced the emerald at dinner the night before. The case was empty. "It's gone!" he fairly screamed. "My ——, it's gone!"

"Impossible," I said. "No one could have entered or left this room since Mr. Ashton came into it."

"Nonsense!" Major Temple snorted angrily. "Do you suppose Ashton smashed in his own skull by way of amusement?" He turned to the bed and began to search it closely, removing the pillows, feeling beneath the mattresses, even taking the candle and examining the floor foot by foot. Once more he went over the contents of the portmanteau, then again examined the clothing of the dead man, but all to no purpose. The Emerald Buddha was as clearly and evidently gone as though it had vanished into the surrounding ether.

THERE was clearly no possibility that Ashton had inflicted this wound upon himself, yet the supposition that some one had entered the room from without seemed nullified by the bolted door and windows.

The body lay, its head toward the window in the west wall of the room, and some six or eight feet away, and an even greater distance from the walls on either side. There was no piece of furniture, no heavy object, anywhere near at hand. I looked again at the queer, round, conical hole in the top of the dead man's head. It had evidently been delivered from above. I glanced up, and saw only the dim, unbroken expanse of the ceiling above me papered in white. I turned to Major Temple, who stood staring with protruding eyes at something upon the floor near one of the windows. "What do you make of that?" he asked in a startled voice, handing me what appeared to be a small piece of tough Chinese paper. Upon it was inscribed, in black, a single Chinese letter.

"It is the symbol of the god," he said, "the Buddha! The same sign was engraved upon the base of the emerald figure, and I saw it in the temple at Ping Yang! What is it doing here? " Then his face lit up with a sudden idea. He rushed to the door and opened it. "Gibson!" he called to his man without. "Find Li Min and bring him here at once! Don't let him out of your sight for a moment!"

The man was gone ten minutes or more, during which time Major Temple walked excitedly up and down the room, muttering continually something about the police. "They must be notified," I said, at last. He turned to me with a queer, half frightened look. "They can do no good, no good, whatever!" he cried. "This is the work of one of the Chinese secret societies. They are the cleverest criminals in the world. I have lived among them, and I know."

"Even the cleverest criminals in the world couldn't bolt a door or window from the outside," I said.

"Do not be too sure of that. I have known them to do things equally strange. This fellow Li Min I brought from China with me—one of the most faithful servants I have ever known. He is not of the peasant or coolie class. He represented to me that he was suspected of belonging to the Reform Association, and was obliged to leave the country to save his head. I do not know—I do not know—possibly he may have been sent to watch—they knew' in Ping Yang that I was after the Emerald Buddha. Who knows? They are an amazing people, an amazing people! Did you hear any footsteps or other noises in the hallway during the night?"

I told him I could not be sure. At tins moment Gibson returned with a scared look on his face. Li Min had disappeared. No one had seen him since the night before. His room had apparently been occupied, but the Chinaman was nowhere to be found.

"The police must be notified at once," I urged.

"I will attend to it," said the Major. "First we must have some coffee." He closed the door of the room carefully and, taking the key from the lock—it had evidently not been used by Mr. Ashton the night before—locked the door from the outside and ordered Gibson to remain in the hallway without and allow no one to approach.

We finished dressing and then had a hurried breakfast. I suggested that I drive into Exeter with one of his men, notify the police and at the same time get my luggage., The murder and the necessity of my appealing as a witness at the inquest made it imperative that I remain upon the scene until the police were satisfied. At my mention of the police the Major showed great uneasiness, as before. "You need not say anything about the—the emerald," he said slowly. "It will only create unnecessary talk' and trouble."

"I'm afraid I must," I replied. "It is evidently the sole motive for the murder."

He shook his head slowly... "What a pity!" he remarked. "What a pity! If the stone is ever found now, the authorities will hold it as the property of the dead man or his relations, if indeed he has any. And it would have been the crowning glory of my collection! But they will never find it, never!" he concluded with a cunning smile.

I wondered whether Major Temple knew more than appeared on the surface, but recollected his excited search of the dead man's belongings.

HOWEVER, during my short drive to Exeter, the thought came to me that if Major Temple could in any way have caused the death of Robert Ashton from without the room, his first act after entering it would naturally have been to search for the emerald. I regretted that I had not examined the floor of the attic above, to determine whether any carefully fitted trap-door or hidden chimney or other opening to the interior of the room below existed; also the walls, and the ground outside.

At police headquarters I explained the case hurriedly, omitting all details except those pertaining directly to Mr. Ashton's death. The Chief Constable sent one of his men into an inner room, who returned in a moment with a small, keen-looking, ferret-faced man of some forty-eight or fifty years, with gray hair, sharp gray eyes, and a smooth-shaven face. He introduced him to me as Sergeant McQuade, of Scotland Yard, who, it seems, happened to be in the city upon some counterfeiting case or other, and suggested that he accompany me back to the house.

We had scarcely left the limits of the town behind us, when I noticed a figure in blue, plodding slowly along the muddy road ahead of us, in the same direction as ourselves, and Jones, the groom, said, as we drew alongside, that it was Li Min, whose sudden disappearance had caused so much excitement. The Chinaman looked at us with a blandly innocent face and, nodding pleasantly, bade us good morning. I stopped the cart and ordered Jones to get down and accompany him back to the house and on no account to let him out of his sight.

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